In addition to the semi-regular Communique posts, I’ve been thinking for a while that I might report on my adventures with the world of modular (Eurorack) synthesis. These posts will go under the self explanatory heading of Maurilia Modular – Maurilia being the name of my home studio, and Modular being the thing that’s cost a significant sum of money to get off the ground; whilst also being enormously rewarding, enlightening and fun.
For this first post, I thought I’d write about how and why I got into modular, whilst addressing some of the common considerations and challenges that come with the territory.
I first became aware of modular around 2016 when some friends started posting pictures of things with lots of cables and flashing lights. However, the cost factor kept me away from taking the dive with modular for a couple of years. Unless you’re a fellow Aussie artist like Dave Noyze or little-scale who can expertly build your own modules, the cost of entry can be significant.
In fact, for those looking to find more fiscally prudent paths into the world of modular, Dave Noyze wrote up an excellent primer on his blog, appropriately titled, Modular Mortgage, Or How To Get into Modular Synthesis Without Going Broke.
Dave’s advice was useful for me, and I persevered for a time with circuits, resistors and a soldering iron. However the frustration of too many burnt out circuits (and singed fingers) led my thoughts to taking the easier, more costly and gratifying route. Of course, I would have to save some money first.
The long road to justification
Exhibit A: a $30 virtual synth that can be played on your smart phone or computer; Exhibit B: several physical modules worth a couple of thousand dollars, requiring a powered enclosure that is going to take up precious space in an already cramped studio. On the surface of things, going with the B option seems as ridiculous as putting cold drip coffee apparatus in your kitchen, when all you need is some decent coffee and a bit of paper.
What’s the point really? There are several answers to this and this article on FACT Mag proved quite helpful when I was weighing up the pros and cons. Talking to friends helped as well, and I found – much like the artists interviewed for the FACT Mag article – that they all came to modular in ways that were unique and authentic to their respective practices.
For me, I my key motivation is linked to an encounter with one of the earliest exponents of modular synthesis. It’s by way of a historical tangent, but it’s entirely relevant I think.
It was 2002 and I was in my first year of my undergraduate degree at the University of Adelaide’s Electronic Music Unit (EMU.) Within the first couple of weeks, we were put before the department’s gargantuan Moog Mk III synthesiser, which had been purchased in 1969 by the eccentric wine heir, Derek Jolly and subsequently bequeathed to the University shortly thereafter.
It’s important to remember that in the early 2000s, modular synthesis wasn’t experiencing anything resembling its current renaissance and was regarded as a bit retroactive and impractical. Electronic music was increasingly being composed and performed in a wholly digital realm, ‘in the box’ on laptop computers; and by comparison, being told to render a flute sound on the Moog Mk III seemed like a sick joke. For myself (and my classmates) the exercise turned out to be an abject failure.
Looking back now, I can’t believe that my classmates and I regarded this opportunity with such hostility and squandered an opportunity to learn about analog synthesis from the ground up. The Mk III in the department was only one of a few in the world that still worked. Later that semester, by the time that I’d persevered and started going through the manual, patching a few rudimentary tones, we’d already been whisked into the digital world of Pro Tools and Max MSP. By 2003, the Mk III had ceased to operate and wouldn’t be repaired for another ten years.
Planning and building a case
By December 2019, I was ready to go. I ordered some Doepfer modules and a DIY power kit and set about building my own case to house the parts. I thought I would save a little money in that area. $15 for wood cuts and some screws beats out an unpowered box for ~$200 any day.
My design accommodated the two sets of 84HP rails provided in the Doepfer DIY kit, with a height of 6U (i.e. two rows of units.)
The case took about three days to prepare and construct. Since the Eurorack format is precise, my dimensions had to be exact and plenty of time was taken making measurements, check these, rubbing them out and making revised measurements. If you’re somebody who builds things on a regular basis (and who has a suitable workspace) you could probably knock something similar together in a single afternoon.
What goes where?
When one gets into modular, there appear to be two common approaches. The first of these is the ‘ground up’ approach of acquiring sound generating modules which are considered the fundamentals of any synthesis system (such as VCO, LFO, VCA, ADSR (EG), filter) and expanding from there. The second approach is to bypass sound generating and to go with something geared towards the manipulating incoming signals with modules capable of things like FM, delay, granular synthesis, etc.
For me, both approaches were attractive but I was won over by the possibility of building a system from the ground up and (re-) learning the fundamentals of sound synthesis as I went along.